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Tacitus: A Reliable Reference to Jesus
Tacitus was a Roman historian writing early in the 2nd century A.D. His Annals provide us with a single reference to Jesus of considerable value. Here is a full quote of the cite of our concern, from Annals 15.44. Jesus and the Christians are mentioned in an account of how the Emperor Nero went after Christians in order to draw attention away from himself after Rome's fire of 64 AD:
But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
This reference provides definitive evidence for the existence of Jesus, for Tacitus moust be taken seriously as a historian. The literature of Tacitean scholars is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus. For example:
• Syme, who was regarded as one of the foremost Tacitean scholars, says "the prime quality of Cornelius Tacitus is distrust. It was needed if a man were to write about the Caesars." He adds that Tacitus "was no stranger to industrious investigation" and his "diligence was exemplary."
• Chilver indicates that "for Tacitus scepticism was inescapable is not to be doubted."
• Martin though noting difficulties about discerning Tacitus' exact sources, says that "It is clear, then, that Tacitus read widely and that the idea that he was an uncritical follower of a single source is quite untenable."
• Grant, while charging Tacitus with bias, error, and "unfair selectivity" in various areas (especially associated with the Emperor Tiberius), nevertheless agrees that Tacitus "was careful to contrast what had been handed down orally with the literary tradition." Elsewhere he notes that "There is no doubt that (Tacitus) took a great deal of care in selecting his material."
• Dudley notes that despite problems in discerning what sources Tacitus used, "it may be said with some confidence that the view that Tacitus followed a single authority no longer commands support."
• Mellor observes that although he made use of other sources, including friends like Pliny, Tacitus "does not slavishly follow, as some of his Roman predecessors did, the vagaries of his sources." He adds that, "If research is the consultation and evaluation of sources, there can be little doubt that Tacitus engaged in serious research though it is not often apparent in the smooth flow of his narrative." Tacitus "consulted both obscure and obvious sources," and "distinguishes fact from rumor with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian."
• Benario tells us that Tacitus "chose judiciously among his sources, totally dependent upon none, and very often, at crucial points, ignored the consensus of his predecessors to impose his own viewpoint and his own judgment."
• Wellesley remarks that investigation "very seldom shows (Tacitus) to be false to fact" and that archaeology has shown that "only once or twice is Tacitus found guilty of a small slip." He adds: "When the sources differ and the truth is hard to decipher, (Tacitus) takes refuge in ambiguous language or the balance of alternative and sometimes spiteful variants," rather than doing original research to determine which option is the truth. We may note that there is no such ambiguous language in Annals 15.44.
• Finally, Momigliano, while pointing out that Tacitus was of course "not a researcher in the modern sense," nevertheless says that he was "a writer whose reliability cannot be seriously questioned." He cites only one possible major error by Tacitus, but puts it down to him relying on a trusted predecessor rather than official records.
It will not do to beg for an exception and say that Tacitus just happened to become careless as a historian when it came to reporting about Jesus. It would be the burden of any doubter to explain why Tacitus’ testimony is not solid evidence of Jesus’ existence.
I will address a few of the more common objections to Tacitus’ testimony in the next arguments.